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Greener Buildings Not Such An Impossible Goal

David Chan – Updated on Jul 05, 2008 – SCMP

China is now responsible for constructing half the world’s new buildings every year, and using 40 per cent of the nation’s energy. On the face of it, it seems a daunting task to also reduce carbon emissions and construct greener buildings in Greater China. However, recent developments in China and in other parts of the world perhaps provide pointers on how this can be done.

There can be no doubt that China is aware of the detrimental effects of 25 years of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation and it was encouraging to see the launch this year of the China Green Building Council. In addition, the China BR star rating system contains a number of salient features.

However, it is worth considering developments in other parts of the world that could be adopted here.

We have been impressed with recent initiatives in Britain which, as of May 1, makes it mandatory for a seller of a residential property to provide a sustainability assessment to be contained in the Home Information Packs.

The new ratings system’s purpose is to give consumers a choice. Before buying, potential buyers would now be able to look at the sustainability assessment, determined by a six-point rating system (the sixth star being the highest and equalling carbon neutrality) and take the green features/technologies of the property into their decision-making criteria.

The British initiative is important and necessary, as the country is committed to a 60 per cent reduction (from 1990 levels) in carbon emissions. Some of the key points of this “code for sustainable homes” include:

* All new homes will be carbon neutral by 2016;

* The six-star rating system;

* Nine assessment criteria – energy efficiency, water efficiency, materials, surface water runoff, waste, pollution, health and well being, management and ecology;

* Inclusion of sustainability assessment in home information packs (a mandatory report of the property prepared by the seller)

Large British developers, such as Berkeley Homes, have committed to this initiative, announcing from the beginning of this year all new projects will be built to code level 3.

Another point about Britain is the design of new homes which have come a long way as a result of the changes. Now it is possible to produce six-star properties at affordable levels. This is a huge advancement as some carbon neutral properties cost as much as three times more than traditional buildings.

Globally, some data suggests that incorporating sustainable technologies into a new property adds as little as 7 per cent extra to building costs. When you also equate the cost of sustainable features against development cost, high urban land prices, cost of marketing/promotion, the final cost for green features could be as little as 1 per cent to 4 per cent.

In addition, the savings in energy consumption and other running costs will, in time, outweigh this initial outlay.

The Kyoto Protocol has been in force since 2005 and 182 parties have ratified it (except the United States – the world’s largest polluter).

One common misconception is that China does not have a regulatory framework. In fact, it is one of the few countries that do have a mandatory code. It is being progressively introduced across the country.

Last year, property developer China Vanke embarked on a scheme to increase efficiency, quality control and introduce some environmental measures in their construction.

For example pre-cast materials were pilot tested in Shanghai with great success and the intention is that within the medium term, 80 per cent of the city’s new homes will be pre-cast. By prefabricating buildings you gain the advantages of factory assembly production with better quality control, economies of scale, and better control of cost.

All this adds up to less wastage, less construction noise and cleaner sites with practically nominal waste discharge (as traditional wet trades are largely eliminated). The overall benefit of mass manufacturing is a high degree of standardisation and hence cost savings can be made. It is worth noting that a new construction will no longer be one-off and that cumulative management knowledge is being retained and green technology continuously used.

It is a fact that newly built homes sell at a premium to older properties. Perhaps we may shortly have data allowing us to analyse whether sustainable homes also sell at a premium to non-sustainable homes or a higher price is attached to homes built to a higher rating? In addition, when will shareholders, auditors and stakeholders demand concise information about a developer’s or building material supplier’s carbon footprint policy?

If British and mainland developers can show that sustainable homes attract a premium from buyers it may make good commercial/business sense, whether there is legislation or not, for other developers in Greater China to follow suit.

It is then that the challenge to cut carbon emissions from buildings – which contribute 40 per cent of emissions into our atmosphere – may not be so onerous, despite the huge construction, and that benefits everyone.

David Chan is divisional director at building consultancy Knight Frank

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